From A to Z Zegna: The Tale of Alessandro Sartori
From A to Z Zegna: The Tale of Alessandro Sartori
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date August 28, 2018
In discussing the Italian tailoring houses of old—the Isaias, Kitons, and Brionis, to name a few—there is an inherent disconnect (unlike on the seasonal ready-to-wear runways) between the product and the men who make it. There is an inclination to assume that a few octogenarians labor away in a nondescript workshop in some forgotten village, producing some of the finest suits in the world. Customers, in general, tend to disregard the creative faces of these companies, more concerned with the product than some designer whose name they can’t be bothered to remember.
In the early aughts, however, a renewed interest in suiting and a radical shift in men’s fashion pushed these companies—somewhat uncomfortably—into the fashion limelight. Men suddenly looked forward to putting on their finest double-breasted peak lapels, and for the first time in their history, these houses found themselves with an abundance of young adult clients. Tastes have since changed, wardrobes grown more casual and the suit waned in interest. In the last few years, these vaunted houses have found themselves struggling to keep clients both new and old. Their strategy? Hire big-name creative directors, hold runway shows and attempt to curry the favor of suddenly fashion-savvy clientele. The results have had mixed effects, from total failure—think Justin O’Shea’s six-month tenure at Brioni—to relative success. Few designers, though, have managed to invigorate heritage suiting brands to the extent of Alessandro Sartori.
Currently the Artistic Director of the Ermenegildo Zegna group, Sartori was born in Trivero, a small town in the Biella province of Northern Italy in 1968. Seemingly destined to work in fashion, he grew up in the nation’s silk capital, with both parents working in the garment industry. Living across the street from his mother’s atelier—where he spent the majority of his spare time—he became engrossed with fabric and fit at an early age. Obsessed with men’s furnishings, Sartori cut his first suit at 14, and bought his first designer suit, a Giorgio Armani no less, three years later. Following his parents’ example, he studied fabrics in high school and in his early twenties moved to Milan where he enrolled at the Istituto Marangoni. Quite simply, the man was destined to make suits—his last name essentially means “tailor.”
After graduating in 1989, Sartori immediately joined the design staff at the Ermenegildo Zegna group, where he worked on and off as an assistant for a number of years. Although he briefly left in the late ‘90s to pursue personal interests, he returned in 2003 to oversee Z Zegna, the tailoring juggernaut’s modern diffusion line. For the next eight years as creative director at Z Zegna, Sartori pioneered an entirely new silhouette, softening the shoulder, shortening the jacket and tailoring the trouser. In the wake of Hedi Slimane’s “skinny suit” and the rapid rise of Dior Homme, men around the world began opting for more modern cuts. While Neapolitan tailoring was slower to adapt, Sartori was arguably ahead of the curve during his Z Zegna tenure, introducing slimmer suits and highlighting elements of sportswear, providing the client with a full wardrobe beyond tailoring. Paying as much attention to a suede jacket as a super-150s wool three-piece, Sartori helped pioneer the idea of head-to-toe dressing. While many menswear competitors—particularly tailors—focused their energy on specific closet staples, Sartori wanted to build a full wardrobe for the Z Zegna client.
During his first few years as creative director of Z Zegna, Sartori focused on building up the customer base. Determined on breaking down rigid house codes, he worked diligently to dispel any preconceived notions of what a Zegna fashion line should be. Well aware his role was to corral the younger, more directional clientele—of which there was plenty during the height of the #menswear boom—Sartori began experimenting in ways few tailors dream of. Playing with proportion, he presented elongated, almost oversized sweaters beneath cropped blazers. Rather than trousers and oxfords, he preferred knit mohair jogging bottoms and hand-made leather sneakers, a jolt of sport in the traditional uniform. Trousers ranged from ultra-slim to voluminous, depending on the season and current taste. Years before Eidos began offering luxe tailored sportswear, Z Zegna was pushing an aesthetic well ahead of its time.
After four years, Sartori took the newly emboldened Z Zegna to New York Fashion Week, in order to present his inaugural runway show. For the Fall/Winter 2007 collection, Sartori honed in on one of his favorite time periods, 1940s Italy, and injected archival workwear elements into the most modern of fabrications. Between leather knee breeches and waxed jacket seams, the clothing was reminiscent of what middle-class field workers wore in the post-WWII era. Yet, employing Zegna’s massive resources and his own technical finesse, he seamlessly integrated modern flourishes, including lush leather cashmere blends, tailored sweatpants, and fine gauge cashmere sweatshirts. In his review for Vogue, Tim Blanks noted that Sartori had the singular ability to “upend any hidebound notions about exactly what the name of Zegna might stand for.”
For the next four seasons, Sartori continued showing in New York to much fanfare before eventually relocating to Milan. By the end of the decade, he had solidified himself as one of the foremost fabric technicians in the industry. Having successfully redefined the Z Zegna man, Sartori began to use the vast resources at his disposal in order to re-engineer suiting fabrics from the bottom up. As Zegna owns its own factories, farms, and workshops, Sartori oversaw the full scope of production—from animal shearing to bespoke fitting—allowing him to experiment with the material in a way few others could. Inventions included digitally needle-punched leather to cashmere lining—removing the need for stitching or glue and preventing the leather from aging—”paper touch” cotton and even the layering of super-light fabrics to create 3-D effects on wool sweaters. More than pure innovation for innovation's sake, Sartori made sure that every bit of technology was rooted in utilitarian need. For Fall 2011, for instance, he devised a new take on a three-piece suit. Noticing his customers no longer wore waistcoats but were still interested in that formal silhouette, he created fully unstructured suits, with a matching cropped waterproof coat. Essentially a suit with two blazers, the pant and inner-jacket could be worn as a set, however, the heavy cotton outer layer—shaped like a traditional blazer, but in a heavy-weight wool-blend cut short and square at shoulder—functioned as both a coat and completed the set. Further, each piece could be worn as a separate, cementing the Z Zegna “head-to-toe” dress ideology.
Sartori’s eight-year tenure at Z Zegna was chock full of similarly clever aesthetic flourishes. By his last season, Spring/Summer 2012, Tim Blanks reaffirmed that Sartori was making some of the “oddest, edgiest menswear in Milan.” But, with the dawn of a new decade, a tectonic shift took place in the world of menswear. Traditionally, there were two distinct camps within the world of high-end menswear—those interested in suiting and those that wore “fashion” proper (put more colloquially, the classicist Cuccinelli client versus the #fashion Prada client). Yet, with a more casual workplace and the heightened popularity of premium sportswear, there was suddenly tons of crossover business. To capitalize on the newfound market, the big luxury conglomerates began to snatch up tailoring houses, hoping to cross-pollinate the pre-existing clientele. Kering made their move first, acquiring the century-old Roman tailoring house Brioni in November of 2011. Zegna, not to be outdone by competitors, acted similarly when they hired Stefano Pilati (formerly of Yves Saint Laurent) and launched Ermenegildo Zegna Couture, a conceptual high-fashion line rooted in traditional suiting. Never far behind, LVMH had similar intentions when they offered Sartori the creative director title at Berluti.
Launched in 1895 by namesake Alessandro Berluti, Berluti was an ultra-high-end Parisian shoemaker for well over a hundred years before it became the luxury powerhouse it is today. With clients including Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and, perhaps most famously, Andy Warhol (the brand’s “Andy” loafer is still in production), the relatively small company produced some of the most extravagant, and expensive, shoes on earth. With a pair fetching easily over two grand—often five thousand or more for custom jobs—the shoes were storied for their entirely handmade construction and “painted” finishes, whereby in-house artisans would physically brush specific dyes directly onto to finished shoes to produce intense colors that spanned from vermillion to aubergine and emerald to sky blue.
Comfortably remaining exclusively on the radar of the ultra-wealthy for decades, the company took a drastic turn when Bernard Arnault, CEO and Head of the Board at LVMH gave his son Antoine a pair for his 17th birthday. They eventually decided to acquire the company in 2003, expanding retail operations and raising turnover to nearly €30 million by the end of the decade.
As Zegna and Kering began to ramp up menswear production, LVMH found themselves flat-footed, lacking a true menswear house to call their own. With Antoine Arnault having already overseen the transformation of Loro Piana from fabric maker to full ready-to-wear business, father and son decided to make Berluti his next pet project and chose to invest purportedly north of €100 million into Berluti transforming the humble shoemaker into the only exclusively menswear house under the LVMH umbrella. Noting the house’s extensive history of treatment, exotic leathers, and craftsmanship, they felt that no man was more fit that Sartori to spearhead the new project. His task? To build a full house from, quite literally, the shoes up.
Appointed as Berluti's Creative Director in the Spring of 2011, Sartori left Z Zegna and was essentially given free reign, allowed to experiment to his heart’s content. The only caveat was that Sartori could not alienate pre-existing clientele. In order to ascertain the needs of the Berluti customer, he took an intensely hands-on approach. Traveling to Tokyo—where a huge chunk of Berluti clientele reside—he invited customers from across Japan to attend a dinner where he discussed brand direction and personally asked customers about their wardrobes, discerning what they felt was lacking in the market. Quickly he understood that while a majority of clients had their tailoring needs fulfilled bespoke, what they lacked was outerwear, sportswear and, obviously, footwear. Hence the decision to “design from the shoes up.”
For his debut collection, Fall/Winter 2012, Sartori hoped to honor the heritage of the house while infusing his trademark fit and fabric technology. Presenting in a cavernous hall of the École des Beaux-Arts, guests walked into a room where rows of golden chairs surrounded the runway. On each chair sat either a last or a pair of shoes from one of the shoemaker’s esteemed customers, from Roman Polanski to Pierre Bergé—Warhol’s pair sat front row. While company history was front and center, the actual looks, cut long and narrow, were as modern as could be. Re-employing that revolutionary digital needle-punch technology, cashmere shearling coats appeared alongside seamless texture wool knits. With elite clientele constantly on the move, he showed fully-packable eight-ply cashmere suiting. Still, well-aware of potential customers’ interest in sportswear, lush suede bomber jackets, and hand-tailored denim found ample room. The result was one of the strongest debuts in recent memory. Of course, footwear played a key role in the debut, and Sartori worked directly with the craftsman and artisans to introduce the legendary shoes to a new generation. While most famous for their hand-patinated finishes, the shoes are almost as famous for how difficult they are to break in. Hoping to shorten that often painful wear-in period, Sartori softened the leather and introduced Goodyear soles rather than the traditional leather hard bottoms. Particularly noteworthy was the reconfigured Alessandro—named after the company founder, not Sartori. Originally a whole-cut oxford made entirely from a single piece of leather, Sartori envisioned the shoe as ankle-boot with side-zipper. The resulting shoe still made entirely from one piece, is not only beautiful but is a singular feat few other companies in the world are able to replicate.
While the collection was a resounding success, it would inevitably take time to build up a steady customer base. Already notoriously expensive, Berluti ready-to-wear proved to be no different, with simple sweaters fetching north of $2000 and shearlings going for $20,000 or more. Still, Antoine Arnault had enough faith in the burgeoning business to facilitate the acquisition of Arnys, the esteemed French tailor, after only a single season. Considered the only French tailor on par with Savile Row, LVMH made the decision to fold the tailor into the Berluti business, in order to offer Sartori a workshop and the skilled craftsman needed to allow Berluti to compete at the highest level. With the purchase of Arnys, Berluti redefined the entire idea of bespoke. Not only suits but every item from sportswear to denim can be entirely hand tailored and fabricated in any material or color a customer desires. For the brand, it was a revolutionary idea; the Berluti customer can essentially walk into any of a number of boutiques around the globe, hand select an item on the rack and then have a tailor take their measurements and make a personal item to their exact specifications. It’s a level of customization that rivals French Haute Couture. With the design studio in Torino, an atelier in Milan and the original footwear workshop in Paris, Berluti under Sartori offered one of the most extensive wardrobe services in menswear. Within a few years, Berluti began hosting special events, where customers could pick out shoes in store and have an artisan change the color and finish on the spot.
For the next five years, Sartori went wild with the resources—and the sheer amount of money—at his disposal. Using Berluti’s unparalleled knowledge of skins, Sartori introduced hand-patinated leather bomber jackets, 50/50 cashmere leather blends for outerwear and even powder-coated leather—a Vitello Opaca super thin calfskin coated with a waterproof membrane to increase durability. For Spring/Summer 2015, he bought the most expensive kangaroo skin in the world and developed it for a spring technical jacket. At .3 millimeters thick, it was the lightest kangaroo skin ever made. More than luxurious leather treatment, Sartori applied similar technical innovations across the board, from specially sourced Japanese denim hand-tailored in Italy to mohair-wool blends for suiting. With weight always a primary concern, Berluti suits are always as light as technologically possible.
For Fall/Winter 2016 (Sartori’s final show for Berluti) he presented what was considered his best collection to date. Reminiscent of that penultimate Z Zegna collection five years earlier, Sartori showed two-fronted suit jackets. Essentially one set of sleeves and back but with an additional lapel buttoned up the jackets inferred a three-piece silhouette, however, when left open appeared as a normal two-piece suit. Working in his famously witty color palette, the designer invoked the desert tones of Marfa, Texas, with deep ruby reds, desert sand yellows, and midnight navy blues. While many critics thought this could be Berluti’s breakout season, behind the scenes another proposition was bubbling, and Sartori opted to part ways from the house he helped shape.
Following a year of secret courtship, Gildo Zegna, current CEO of the Zegna group and Ermenegildo Zegna’s grandson, finally convinced Sartori to come home. In a move akin to Hedi Slimane returning to Yves Saint Laurent following his hiatus and departure from Dior Homme, the Zegna veteran was offered the role of artistic director of Ermenegildo Zegna group. The first time in the label’s history that one individual has overseen the direction of the entire business, Satori was hired following the dismissal of Stefano Pilati in February of 2016. Only a matter of weeks thereafter, it was announced that Sartori would act as his replacement and would be designing the Z Zegna, Ermenegildo Zegna, and couture collections.
While the wunderkind was making waves at Berluti, the Zegna business had become a hot mess. Zegna Sport, the third diffusion line, had essentially been deemed a lost cause and was folded into Z Zegna in 2014. Pilati’s collections—dubbed “Zegna Couture”—while receiving rave reviews, were mostly a marketing ploy, with limited availability and an astronomical price point. For a house whose bread-and-butter was $3000 off-the-rack suits, the business was simply at odds with itself.
When Sartori was hired, his first order of business was to simplify company structure and update the business model—a daunting task considering the nature of Zegna. By far the largest luxury menswear business in the world, Ermenegildo Zegna operates on a £1.2 million turnover, with over 500 unique boutiques across the globe and countless more points of sale. A fourth-generation family-owned business, Zegna was founded as a mill and sheep farm in 1910 by the first Ermenegildo Zegna (current CEO Gildo—short for Ermenegildo—Zegna’s grandfather) and has since expanded into an empire. This includes not just the brand’s own ready-to-wear collection, but also a fabric and wool wholesale business. Given Sartori’s ability to develop the Berluti brand without alienating generations worth of clientele, he was tasked with bridging the gap between the Z Zegna and mainline labels, while still honoring customers who had been buying Zegna suits for decades.
In order to achieve this feat, Sartori envisioned each line as serving a specific purpose, yet still allow for crossover appeal, given that is the way the modern consumer shops. While Z Zegna still provides tailoring—at the reasonable price of a $1000 dollars for a full suit—it transitioned into a decidedly more sportswear-centric, entry level brand. This differed from mainline Zegna, which is more suiting and leather focused, with shearlings and bombers stretching the brand within its luxury space limits. Beyond brand differentiation, Sartori envisioned a new product calendar and store specific merchandise. Rather than four main product drops, Zegna now operates on a schedule similar to Louis Vuitton or Chanel, offering a slew of drops throughout the year, more closely relating to the season. Further, each store’s individual inventories reflect climate and locale, meaning the Miami boutique will not receive heavyweight wool coats in September, as those clients simply have no use for them.
For his grand return, Sartori began with the unveiling of Z Zegna at Pitti Uomo 91. The first time the diffusion line had presented at the Florentine trade show in three years, the Fall/Winter 2017 collection was inspired by a ‘70s house ski-wear line that the Italian national team wore whilst competing. Featuring all the tech Sartori had accrued throughout his career, including proprietary breathable techno merino wool and dual-layer jackets with built-in wirelessly rechargeable heating systems, the line firmly reestablished his Z Zegna reign. Then, one day later, he presented his debut mainline collection in Milan. Clearly attempting to unify the two labels, the mainline collection focused on a similar color palette and even included some of the ski pants and boots presented just one day prior. Obviously heavier on tailoring, the collection—while less sporty and more sophisticated—still infused transgressive elements, including quilted suit jackets, loosely knit mohair trousers, alpaca bombers and even baggy technical suit pants. While the two collections featured plenty of similar themes, each still managed to feel distinct, a feat of clever styling and unique fabric choice. In tandem, the shows were considered a runaway success and marked a new era for the multi-billion dollar business.
Now more comfortable in his role, the self-professed fabric nerd is in the midst of intense research, hoping to solve decades-old problems in the world of suiting. His current undertaking is a crease-resistant wool fiber, which aims to prevent felting and in turn, create a fabric that maintains wool’s unique characteristics while being entirely machine washable. With recent inventions such as paper-thin vegetable-waxed calf-leather trench coats and bobbled-cashmere for bombers, few designers in the business work as diligently in fabric innovation.
A cross between Veronique Nichanian—the fabric savvy menswear designer of Hermès—and Brunello Cucinelli, Sartori is in a league of his own. Quite possibly the spiritual successor to Giorgio Armani, the natural-born tailor knows no bounds, and will undoubtedly continue to influence suiting for years to come. We all wait with baited breath for what he will cook up next.